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Hello? Dolly? 

Key roles fall short in Porthouse's musical

If you adore classic musicals with eye-candy sets, lush costumes, and elaborate dance extravaganzas, then Hello, Dolly! certainly earns its exclamation point.

But if you also love characters with dimension — even in a fluffy entertainment such as this — you may feel moved to replace the aforementioned punctuation mark with a slightly frowny emoticon.

This Jerry Herman musical (with book by Michael Stewart), now playing at the Porthouse Theatre, has been tromping the boards for almost half a century, with great tunes and a title role to die for. While Carol Channing made it her own for decades, others have found ways to put their own stamp on the aggressively sweet and endlessly conniving Dolly Levi.

Inhabiting the turn of the 20th century, Dolly is a matchmaker and pretty much anything else you need her to be, as reflected by the business cards she whips out to suit virtually any situation. But the one person the recently widowed Dolly really wants to match is herself — with her lovelorn client, the half-a-millionaire grump-bucket Horace Vandergelder.

Hijinks ensue as Horace makes the trek from Yonkers to New York City to meet with hat shop owner Irene Molloy. He hopes she's the one for him, even as Dolly suggests the innocent milliner has a murderous streak. Meanwhile, Horace's clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, also jaunt to the big city in search of adventure and — gasp — the chance to kiss a girl.

Part of Dolly!'s charm is its untrammeled innocence, mixed with acidic accents provided by snarky Horace and Dolly's non-stop, self-serving con.

This production masters the innocent part just fine. Playing Irene's assistant Minnie Fay, Rebecca Wolfe is a sheer delight as she gasps in horror when actual men enter the feminine confines of the hat shop. Also charming is Eric van Baars as Cornelius, writhing in earnestness and allowing his character's clumsiness to imbue this geek with a heart of gold. As Irene, Jessica Cope handles her singing chores almost flawlessly, especially in her featured solo "Ribbons Down My Back."

Another major plus is the choreography of John R. Crawford. The rousing "Waiters' Gallop," involving a phalanx of tux-clad servers, is a blur of black and white precision.

Unfortunately, some of the fun is undercut by simplistic characterizations in key roles. As Horace, Chuck Ritchie relies too much on screaming and a bitter beer face to craft this pain-in-the-butt merchant. And as the pouty Ermengarde, Mackenzie Duan doesn't find a way to make her repetitive wails more amusing than irritating.

Of course, this show always comes down to Dolly, in this instance played by Porthouse artistic director Terri Kent. This is Kent's first stage performance in 13 years, and it would be wonderful to report that her gutsy return to the boards is a triumph.

On the plus side, Kent's quiet moments, when Dolly is speaking to her deceased husband, feel honest and moving. But during the bulk of the play, Dolly is shucking and jiving to save her soul, and Kent never fully inhabits that rabid, go-for-broke energy. It seems as if she is on the outside looking in.

As for Kent's singing in the showcase numbers "Before the Parade Passes By" and the title song, her voice on opening night displayed the effects of rehearsal exhaustion. Hopefully, her pipes will recover and blossom as the run continues.

Director Victoria Bussert knows how to stage a full-tilt production. Smooth scene transitions, aided by a large turntable, keep the pace lively throughout. And when the stage is filled with the large cast, all dressed to the nines, hoofing and belting out their numbers, it's a little taste of Broadway bliss.

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